Growing Roots in the Future

Building a Global Movement for Refugee Self-Reliance


By Michael Karam


A Global Crisis

Of the 68.5 million people forcibly displaced around the world, 25.4 million are refugees – the largest number ever recorded. On average, the length of displacement is 26 years and growing, and 84% of refugees live in developing countries.1


Amid this global refugee crisis, there is an increased need for innovative solutions. Humanitarian and emergency aid budgets are stretched thin, providing band-aid solutions that foster cycles of dependency. The current framework is neither financially sustainable nor dignified. Refugees deserve the opportunity to provide for themselves and pursue their dreams for a better life. Solutions should focus on responsibly graduating refugees away from dependency on long-term international humanitarian assistance. This shift in focus would transform the way refugees experience displacement as emergency funding is redirected to those who need it the most. Consequently, refugee households are better able to seize the opportunity to work, leverage their talents, and make financial and livelihoods decisions.


The Facts

The number of refugees around the world is the largest ever recorded, and refugees spend an unprecedented amount of time displaced.

million refugees, of the 68.5 million people forcibly displaced around the world
years, on average, spent in displacement
of refugees live in developing countries

A Coordinated Response

Despite the enormity of the challenge and opportunity, NGO projects to economically engage refugees remained dispersed and uncoordinated. No global forum existed to coordinate sharing what has been learned from projects promoting refugee self-reliance. To meet this need, RefugePoint and Women’s Refugee Commission convened the Refugee Self-Reliance Initiative in 2016, a coalition dedicated to sharing knowledge and exploring promising practices around programs that promote self-reliance for refugees and evaluating effectiveness. The Initiative includes a diverse group of leading humanitarians such as Mercy Corps, Asylum Access, Danish Refugee Council, International Rescue Committee, and Christian Aid UK,2 along with economic development pioneer Trickle Up, to rally policymakers and allies to help refugees build better lives.


Refugees Deserve Better Lives Now

Over the next five years (2019-2023), the Refugee Self-Reliance Initiative’s goal is to collectively reach five million refugees with self-reliance programs that identify effective models and replicate them. The Self-Reliance Index, a measurement tool that will develop an evidence base for effective program approaches is now undergoing its final test. Just as critical, the initiative will raise awareness and attract new resources to influence program design, policy environments in countries that host refugees, and funding from donors.
On September 20, 2018, the Refugee Self-Reliance Initiative hosted Better Lives Now: Leveraging Refugees’ Talents, a side-event at the United Nations General Assembly in New York City. “Collectively, we are working towards bringing self-reliance to refugees – we’re doing this because we have come to a historic moment where we need a new way of doing things,” said Sacha, Founder and Executive Director of RefugePoint, in his opening remarks.
Vartan Gregorian, President of the Carnegie Corporation of New York and Co-founder of the Aurora Humanitarian Initiative, and Kim Campbell, former Prime Minister of Canada and member of WLA-Club de Madrid, further emphasized the context and importance of this work. As the migration crisis around the world intensifies, we must remind ourselves that men and women are not merely socioeconomic commodities to be processed, but human beings seeking dignity and independence through work. Robert Hakiza, a Congolese refugee living in Uganda who co-founded YARID, an NGO in Uganda that brings together urban refugees around livelihoods activities to address social issues, shared his personal experience living in displacement. Through his journey, he uncovered what skills he lacked and what skills he could employ to build a dignified livelihood. Robert was fortunate to be in Uganda where refugees face fewer barriers of entry to the workforce. Noubar Afeyan, Founder and CEO of Flagship Pioneering and Co-Founder of Aurora Humanitarian Initiative, shared the story of his family’s harrowing escape from genocide in Armenia. His ancestors fled Armenia to Turkey, then Bulgaria, and finally Lebanon where he was born. When the Lebanese Civil War broke out, his family came to Canada as asylum seekers. According to Noubar, “the only place refugees and immigrants can drop roots is the future.” To help them do that, the humanitarian system needs to change.



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A Compact to Restore Hope

Maria Stavropoulou, acting Deputy Director at the UNHCR Liaison Office in New York, highlighted the need for host country political will to remove barriers to workforce entry in many more countries so that Uganda becomes the norm and not the exception. Beyond just government interventions, Per Heggenes, CEO of the IKEA foundation, explained the value of private sector partnerships in bringing about sustainable and long-term change to refugees’ lives. Not only is self-reliance cost-effective, explained Sarah Costa, Executive Director at Women’s Refugee Commission, but it is also the best way to leverage refugee skills and expertise to restore their lives, dignity, and hope.


As the Refugee Self-Reliance Initiative launch occurred, the Global Compact on Refugees, which includes goals of easing pressure on host countries and enhancing refugee self-reliance, was presented to the United Nations General Assembly during their annual sessions. The compact stems from the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants in 2016, which was signed by all 193 UN Member States, and will likely be adopted by the UN General Assembly by the end of 2018. Learn more here.


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Michael Karam is Trickle Up's Communications Associate for the Refugee Affairs team and is based in New York, New York.